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Edible Insects

Insects have played an important part in the history of human nutrition in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas . Hundreds of species have been used as human food. Some of the more important groups include grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs and (sometimes) adults, winged termites (some of which are very large in the tropics), bee, wasp and ant brood (larvae and pupae) as well as winged ants, cicadas, and a variety of aquatic insects. Ordinarily, insects are not used as emergency food to ward off starvation, but are included as a normal part of the diet throughout the year or when seasonally available.

In Europe the use of insects of foods has always been very limited. Although frequently mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature, there are only very few reports on the use of insects as food in later centuries. Only in times of starvation, insects were eaten. The main reason for the difference between Europe and the other continents is that insects are not so abundant and generally much smaller as in tropical regions.

Insects in a Beijing (China) market in 2004.

Recently the use of insects as food has declined in many tropical regions, partly to increased availability of ‘better' foods. This often includes meat and more Western styles of dishes. As insects are a very good source of nutrients, the question remains whether insects are not actually the better food. In Africa insects are traded on a large scale and several industries produce canned insects and insect dishes.

On the other hand, in the US and to a lesser extend in Europe, eating insects has increased. However, not as a regular food, but more as a curiosity. Insects are for example covered in chocolate or offered as sugared candies.

Tequila flavoured candy with worm (source)

Chocolate covered ant candies

Most religions accept insects as normal food and place no restrictions or taboos on consumption of insects. Jewish traditions consider only a few types of insects as kosher. However, in practice, Jews avoid eating insects deliberately, as only trained entomologists may be able to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher insects.

In Muslim regions the use of insects is very restricted. Only grasshoppers are considered halal (allowed to eat), when died a naturally death or killed lawfully. Practically all other insects are considered haram. However, in countries such as India, Indonesia and Malaysia, many different insects are eaten traditionally, even in nominal Islamic regions. In Arab countries only grasshoppers can be found on markets.

As over 1500 different species of insects have been reported as being consumed or edible, this is a too long list to describe in detail. The following pages give some more information on the use of insects as food:

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